Along with The Apprentice, there’s no better show than Dragon’s Den for tracking developments in a sort of pop-corporate thinking, and discovering just how innocuous presentations of our boring dystopia can be.
No doubt aware of my masochistic viewing habits, the YouTube algorithm threw this clip from Dragon’s Den at me this morning. The pitch is for a company called Gener8 that claims to act as a dam for all your personal data. In “private” mode, they will block all cookies from being attached to your system. But in “earn” mode, they’ll allow you to sell your own data in exchange for vouchers and coupons, etc.
The “dragons” are agog at the pitch and there’s a brief bidding battle for the investment. Having just held the latest XG reading group last night, it wasn’t hard to see why.
We’re still reading Jodi Dean’s book Blog Theory and, in the third chapter, she plots, with depressing prescience, the drive towards personalisation-as-participation in cyberspace, with the ways social media allows us to supposedly personalise our entire experience previously being the main attraction. Facebook and MySpace — perhaps less so Twitter, in that it can be (seemingly) more anon, but also even more atomising — further embolden capitalist individualism as we stake out independent spaces in cyberspace and deny ourselves a sense of community online. (A Facebook or Whatsapp group, or a group DM, though useful for organising, do not constitute solidarity alone.)
Gener8 shows just how bad things have gotten. The issue of digital privacy is dire. GDPR compliance has made us more aware of how companies use our data and interact with us, but it hasn’t helped us do anything more about it. Because companies don’t want to relinquish control of our data. They’ve built an entire economy on top of their presumptive access to it. All they can do now is feign relinquishment, and make us feel like we have a bit more agency, perhaps by — can you believe it? — giving us something back. But Gener8 seems to give you crumbs in exchange for a little bit of your own agency. All the while, it further makes the collective theft of data mining into an individual issue.
Dean’s feelings around identity control in the early 2010s are apt, if quaint (in hindsight). But her analysis of social media’s more innocuous pasts are all the more pressing today. Drawing on the work of Cayley Sorochan, for example, she considers how passive agency is the name of the game when it comes to our social media infrastructures:
Countering enthusiastic appropriations of flash mobs as new instances of demographic engagement, Sorochan presents them as instances of the “fetishizing of pure participation removed from any meaningful political project.” She concludes, “Hopes that flash mobs might represent a future form of political organisation reflect a desire for a politics of convenience where getting together with others is easy and does not involve conflict, commitment and struggle.” In the circuits of communicative capitalism, convenience trumps commitment.
Whereas Dean is talking about follower culture and friend lists, it is clear today that communicative capitalism has put a price tag on this sense of convenience, and does it all so you get to “opt in”. Faced with a suave tech-Jesus, the “dragons” see an open goal. Earning £5-£25 a month as a individual sounds like nice pocket money just for turning on a data mining app, but we know our data is worth so much more. It’s being given pocket change to have someone follow you wherever you go. Gener8 dude is “taking back control” with a messianic hairdo, but the control is an illusion. Nevertheless, it allows communicative capitalism to suture a rupture in its own fabric. Whereas we gain a pittance, capital has even more access to our selves, further defining us as online individuals. The corporate sentiment of “We’re listening” is coated in an empathetic gloss, diluting its de facto sinister nature.
The tension at work here is related to how precious we are about our individuality, but also the ways that our data is stuck in a marketing blender. Uncomfortable with being reduced to “just a number”, we’re given a more active and affirming role in our own exploitation, which only serves to make the data collected only complete. “Improvements” to the system only make our experience of its worse.
Dean’s analysis is, again, on the money. “We have been produced as subjects unlikely to coalesce, subjects resistant to solidarity and suspicious of collectivity”, she writes. “Central to this production is the cultivation and feeding of a sense of unique and special individuality.” On social media, this occurs simply by participating. “Participation becomes indistinguishable from personalization, the continued cultivation of one’s person.” But what we construct is an “imaginary identity”. Distinct from the “symbolic identity” that is, in Lacanian terms, our “ideal-I”, our ego, the imaginary “cyber-I” is instead constituted by corporations, based on decontextualised and depoliticised language scraped from our browser histories and message logs, and is therefore doomed to be anemic and reductive, making even our own “individuality” a shrivelled husk, never mind our collective solidarity.
Expressed in psychoanalytic terms, symbolic identity is increasingly meaningless in the society of control. What we are instead are imaginary identities sustained by excess jouissance, by an injunction to enjoy. More specifically, symbolic identity involves the subject’s identification with an ego ideal, a perspective before whom the subject sees himself and his actions. Imaginary identification refers to the image that the subject adopts of himself. Symbolic identification, we might say, establishes the setting that determines which images appear and how it is that some are more compelling or attractive to us than others. Imaginary identification refers only to my self-image.
The best thing we can do, but perhaps the most difficult, is opt out — and I mean opt all the way out.
Once upon a time, the argument was to intensify cyberspace’s inhumanism. That is to say, rather than welcome attempts to humanise and subjectivise our online experiences, we should make more space for the inhuman. As Mark Fisher wrote in “Spinoza, K-Punk, Neuropunk”:
According to Spinoza, to be free is to act according to reason. To act according to reason is to act according to your own interests. Finally, however, we have to recognize that, on Spinoza’s account, the best interests of the human species coincide with becoming-inhuman.
Social media only proves this point, and with ratcheting horror as the years slip by.
We can now see why becoming inhuman is in the best interests of humanity. The human organism is set up to produce misery. What we like may be damaging for us. What feels good may poison us.
Once upon a time, the blogipelago was a salve to this…
What has begun to emerge on the most destratifying elements of the blogosphere is a depersonalising, desubjectifying network producing more joyful encounters in a positive feedback process in which mammal-reptilian conflict defaults are disabled.
… But no longer. Now they only serve to accelerate a disempathetic feedback loop. The “8” in Gener8 mocks us — an ouroboros generating nothing but more of the same.